There are many different ways to experience the plays of William Shakespeare. Sometimes we experience the plays as audience members attending formal performances. At some point, most of us have studied Shakespeare as students of English literature. Most everyone knows Shakespeare as an icon of Western civilization—a symbol of culture and high art.
I have had all of those experiences with Shakespeare, but I have also had a taste of another perspective. I used to be an actor and I worked for a while (long ago) in the professional theater. So, let me tell you this:
In my experience, the people who enjoy Shakespeare the most and, I believe, who understand his writing the best, are the actors and actresses who perform his works. To them, the merit of Shakespeare's plays is not that they are a symbol of culture, a subject of academic study, or even as literary masterpieces. To the people I have known who perform Shakespeare's work for a living, the merit of his plays is simply this: They are good.
Shakespeare's plays make for good theater. They are filled with delicious moments of discovery and the unexpected. They reveal the nature of human existence in ways that are funny and deeply moving. They are a pleasure to perform and, when they are done well, they have a powerful affect on an audience. Shakespeare's plays are good for no better and no worse reason than that they work amazingly well on the stage.
Now, I want to suggest that we can view Judaism the same way.
Some people experience Judaism as a kind of performance they they attend a few times a year out of a sense of duty, propriety or sentimental attachment to their heritage. Some people experience Judaism as a lovely collection of stories, ethical teachings, and intellectual stimulation (even if they don't believe in it). Some people relate to Judaism mostly as an icon—the transmitted word of God handed down to us through the generations.
At some point, most Jews have experienced Judaism in all of these forms. I have to tell you, though, that, in my experience, the people who enjoy Judaism the most and, I believe, who understand it the best, are the people who live it.
The true merit of Judaism is not that it is the holy word of God written by the hand of Moses and handed down to us across the ages. It is not that it is a fascinating and captivating subject of study. It is not that it is a treasured relic of the past that we must maintain for future generations as it has been maintained for us. Judaism can be described as all of these things, but it is much more.
The true merit of Judaism is that it works. It brings joy into the hearts of people who delight in it. Judaism delivers a sense of wholeness and meaning into the lives of the people who embrace it. It feels good. It makes you feel connected to the whole universe and it opens your eyes to the miracles that surround you in every moment. Judaism is good for no better and no worse reason than that it fulfills the deepest yearning of the human heart to experience the mystery within a mystery that we call life.
Think about it.